August 15, 2007

"Land, Farm, and Place"

...that's the title of the first chapter in Jimmy Carter's An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood. Carter loved his family farm so much that he couldn't help but begin telling his story by situating Plains, Georgia geographically:

If you leave Savannah on the coast and travel on the only U.S. highway that goes almost straight westward across the state of Georgia, you will cross the Ogeechee, Oconee, and Ocmulgee rivers, all of which flow to the south and east and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. After about three hours you'll cross the Flint River, the first stream that runs in a different direction, and eventually its often muddy waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, our "divide" is not noticeable, because the land was all part of the relatively flat bottom of the sea in the not-too-distant geological past. It is still rich and productive, thanks to the early ocean sediments and the nutrients it has accumulated from plants and animals since that time.

If you keep on for another thirty miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you'll come to Plains, a small town on land as level as any you will ever see.

Especially for people who grow up on a farm, those surroundings can become more than just a home. They're part of your family, your blood. You remember the magnolia trees you climbed as a child, the crows who laughed at you when you were pissed off at you parents, and if you worked the land--the feeling of sun-baked earth between your fingers. You also know what it's like for your stomach to moan when you see how brown the corn is during drought.

There is a romance to that story of a Southern farm boyhood--especially if you're white and there was a limit to how hard life got for you.

But this is not Chiles' story.

His first years in the world were in as big town was there was in Polk County, Florida in the 1930s--Lakeland. He lived more than a hundred miles south of the Cotton Belt counties of North Florida. As far as I know, the citrus and strawberry farms surrounding Lakeland weren't even sharecropped by poor whites. Farming was black labor.

The land may not have shaped his views on race like in the Carter memoirs, but nature was important to Chiles. The hunting and fishing that filled the hours of his boyhood seeded the passion for conservation that grew all his political life. In his last years, he bought a 250-acre farm outside Tallahassee so he could walk in the woods and clear his head when he wanted--or bag a turkey or two. He never talked politics on the hunt. Why go to the woods if you were gonna bring the office with you?

For that reason, the land may figure into the Chiles story as much as Carter's.

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